This country of 700,000 people, roughly the size of Switzerland, is the world’s only Mahayana Buddhist country. The Buddhist respect for all sentient beings helped Bhutan protect its prestine ecology and wildlife.
This self-sufficient population was never colonized and had limited contact to the outside world. Buddhism was established in the 8th century by the Indian saint Padmasambhava, popularly known in the Tantric tradition as Guru Rinpoche. .
Perhaps the most dynamic era in Bhutanese history came in the 17th century with the arrival, in 1616, of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the great leader of the Drukpa school of Mahayana Buddhism. He unified the country and established the foundations for national governance and the Bhutanese identity.
In 1907, a historic Assembly of the clergy, the official administration, and the people unanimously elected Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck as the first hereditary King of Bhutan thus beginning the glorious era of the Wangchuck dynasty. In 2006, the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced that he would abdicate in favor of a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. In 2008, the year that marked 100 years of the monarchy saw two important events; the first democratic elections and the coronation of the fifth king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.
A Rich Heritage
Bhutanese language and literature, the arts and crafts, ceremonies and events, and basic social and cultural values draw their essence from religious teachings. The tradition of fine art is alive today, manifested, for example, in exquisite traditional painting visible on monasteries and houses, skillfully enhancing the architecture.
Architecture is also a significant feature of the Bhutanese identity. The combination of engineering skill and aesthetic beauty is unparalleled in all structures, from the massive monastic fortresses to houses and bridges. Traditional shapes, colours and patterns on the walls, doors, windows, put Bhutanese architecture in a class of its own.
Music, dance, and handicrafts, both by the clergy and the lay population, play an important role in national, village, or domestic functions and festivals. Bhutan’s textile tradition has, in recent years, gone international. The distinct technique, colour and style of indigenous Bhutanese weaving is being increasingly appreciated by textile specialists, collectors, and users.
The national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha. The people also speak more than 18 dialects across the country. Today, English is taught in the schools and is used as the official working language, but the national leaders emphasise the development and use of Dzongkha.
Bhutan has been described as a natural paradise. Even as the world mourns the hastening ecological damage, this small Himalayan Kingdom is emerging as an example to the international community, with about 80 percent of its land still under forest and a great variety of rare plant and wildlife species.
Wedged between China and India, Bhutan’s terrain ranges from the sub-tropical foothills in the south, through the temperate zones, to dizzying heights of over 7,300 meters (24,000 feet). In Historical records Bhutan was known as Lhojong Menjong ‘the Southern Valley of Medicinal Herbs.’ Besides these rare herbs, the Bhutanese seasons are reflected in full color by wild flowers and plants, which carpet the mountain sides.
Bhutan’s population is, in many ways, one large family. More than 70 percent of the people live on subsistence farming, scattered in sparsely populated villages across the rugged terrain of the Himalayas. With rice as the staple diet in the lower regions, and wheat, buckwheat, and maize in other valleys, the people farm narrow terraces cut into the steep hill slopes.
Bhutanese communities settled in the valleys with limited communication in the past. It is for this reason that the sense of individuality and independence emerges as a strong characteristic of the people.
It is for the same reason that, despite the small population, it has developed a number of languages and dialects. The Bhutanese are, by nature, physically strong and fiercely independent with a ready sense of humor. Hospitality is an in-built social value in Bhutan.